MANSFIELD, Mass. - The New Kids on the Block are wrestling. This is not archival footage from the late '80s or early '90s of the teen-pop heartthrobs as frisky youngsters airing on a TV screen. This is the freshly reunited group of fully grown men live and in person ... putting one another in headlocks.
It isn't entirely clear if they are mugging for the photographer snapping a few shots backstage at the annual Kiss 108 summer concert or just, you know, wrestling, like men who've known one another since grade school are prone to do.
``When we found out we were going to do (the Kiss concert), I was just tickled pink. Because there's just so much history here for us,'' Joey McIntyre says during an early morning group interview after the body slams have subsided.
Indeed, the quintet played the hometown radio show several times during its ``Hangin' Tough'' heyday, back when the superstars hawked lunch boxes, set young girls swooning, and sold 70 million albums. The New Kids were slated to return to the show before the members amicably parted ways in 1994 as exhausted and rich 20-somethings eager to explore life beyond synchronized choreography. ``We felt like if we did that show, it was going to open up another whole chapter and we just decided to close it there,'' says McIntyre, who's still babyfaced at 35 and takes pains to point out that only he is tickled pink and that Danny Wood would never use such a phrase. Wood, who at 39 has morphed into the group's most muscle-bound and tattooed member, laughs and shakes his head in agreement. ``The best thing for me,'' pipes up Jordan Knight , retaining his resident dreamboat status at 38, ``is that my son's going to be able to come and see what his daddy does onstage in our hometown.''
Knight's son isn't the only one curious about NKOTB version 2.0. Since announcing its reunion on the ``Today'' show this spring, the group has booked a sold-out arena tour and watched its comeback single, the breezy ``Summertime, '' hit the Top 40.
Last week, the quintet released ``The Block,'' its first album of new material since 1994's ill-fated ``Face the Music.'' The second single - a silky, ultra-contemporary club jam called ``Single'' featuring hotshot songwriter-performe r Ne-Yo - began its chart ascent (at No. 86) last week.
Clad in muted blacks and grays - later they will change into sharp black suits and, eventually, Celtics jerseys for the show - the men sit on a couch backstage, completely at ease both with one another and back in the center of the maelstrom. When McIntyre reports that there have been no big arguments since the reunion began nearly a year ago, Jonathan Knight immediately barks playfully ``Shut up!'' (It's one of the very rare instances in which the 39-year-old ``quiet one'' voluntarily speaks during the interview, although he, like the others, does much nodding and laughing.)
Even though a successful reunion required all five members, the unspoken leader of the newly reformed group is clearly Donnie Wahlberg . Wahlberg was the chief contributing songwriter on ``The Block,'' financed the start of its recording and was the driving force after years of being the primary holdout.
Some have wondered why Wahlberg would choose this moment to return to the fold when his acting resume has blossomed to include roles in such critically acclaimed big and small-screen projects as `` Band of Brothers ,'' `` Boomtown ,' ' the upcoming film `` Righteous Kill '' with Robert De Niro and Al Pacino and the commercially successful ``Saw'' franchise. Wahlberg, who exudes a funny combination of round-the-way earnestness and rebel bluster, is not a fan of this line of questioning.
``If people think that I'm that smart and that talented and that great, why would you then turn around and discredit what I did before?'' he asks with a touch of exasperation detectable behind his shades. ``It's not like I have a chip on my shoulder, but it probably did fuel me a little bit. In other words, I didn't gloat. I never felt like, `Yeah, right on, I'm great and the New Kids aren't.' It was more like I'm that same guy from the New Kids. And if you think I'm a hard worker and really talented now, why would you think I was a complete idiot at the age of 21?''
Everyone cracks up at this, even Wahlberg, remembering the easily documented idiocy of his youth. ``In some ways I was,'' he says with a wry smile. ``But I still had the same instincts and drive and passion, and part of me does want to show that to people. That this is not a mistaken footnote in my career, it's a big part of it and it means a lot to me. And I'd like to redefine this for a lot of people, what the New Kids was.''
Wahlberg's passion was not lost on the heavy-hitters the group enlisted to relaunch the brand, including the management company of industry veteran Irving Azoff (Eagles, Christina Aguilera ), producers like Timbaland and Polow Da Don and Interscope Records . (Wahlberg, in fact, gave the label its first million-seller as the songwriter-producer behind his brother's group, Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch . ``A little ditty called `Good Vibrations,' maybe you've heard of it,'' jokes McIntyre.)
``We're still young and we're still very in touch with what's going on music-wise,' ' says Jordan Knight, who also released a solo album with the label. ``So we wanted to be teamed up with a company that's at the top of their game and who has a radio staff and a promotions staff and knows what they're doing.''
``We're investing a lot in this: time, energy, and resources,'' says Martin Kierszenbaum , president of A&R for Interscope. ``There's a lot of things to do in this world. And we wouldn't be doing that if we didn't believe in them long-term.''
Kierszenbaum was particularly impressed with Wahlberg's business acumen and songwriting. ``He had a great sense for melody and he would pick great collaborators, '' he says of ``Block'' co-writers and producers including Akon, Nelly, Teddy Riley , RedOne and longtime group friend Eman Kiriakou.
``Anybody who scoffed or wasn't really interested we didn't really try to twist their arms. We just said, `OK, we'll go on to something else because we believe in it,''' says Wahlberg. And the members say there was plenty of scoffing, from producers to choreographers to even bodyguards who didn't want to be associated with the credibility- challenged former boy band.
``Yeah, there was some snickering, but the more people got exposed to them, the snickers were going away,'' says Kierszenbaum, a guilt-free New Kids fan. ``And there's a lot less snickering now, now that Madison Square Garden is sold out.''
``There's always the possibility that someone who has had that lightning success will capture interest with a reunion,'' says Geoff Mayfield, director of charts and senior analyst at Billboard magazine. He expects ``The Block'' to score well out of the gate. ``It's not going to ship a Lil Wayne number, but it's going to ship a respectable number for today's marketplace. And that puts them in good shape to at least debut top 10, probably top five if they have the kind of sell-through that I think they're going to.'' But in order for the band to avoid the slide that most reuniting acts face, Mayfield says, ``It's got to connect and if someone thinks you're just doing something just to do it, it won't work.''
So far it's working for fans Alexis Lomen and Kim Carlton, both 31, of St. Paul, Minn. The pair has been comically documenting their excitement about the New Kids reunion on the blog Project NKOTB. They plan to attend at least four shows on the tour and were in the throng of nearly 8,000 who mobbed a recent appearance by the guys at a Best Buy in the Mall of America.
They agree that ``Summertime' ' was a little too cutesy and retro for 2008: ``I was happy to hear new music, but I was like, really, can we do something a little more progressive? '' Carlton says with a laugh. But they give the thumbs-up to the sleeker ``Single'' and think it bodes well for the album as a whole. ``If they're trying to get a broader audience than what their fanbase was the first time around, I think that's probably the way to do it,'' says Carlton.
Although they giggle about their ``dorkaliciousness, '' neither woman feels any shame about their resurfacing New Kids love. ``They were such an important part of our lives in that time period that I've never been embarrassed about it,'' says Lomen, who as an Emerson student in the mid-'90s went on a guided tour of the guys' homes and Wahlberg's favorite Stop & Shop thanks to a local friend. ``I never felt the need to justify something that was important to me.''
That pride, says Wahlberg, is the ultimate goal for him and his band. ``It would be nice when this is all said and done if we could look back at this second incarnation and say, `That was cool, that was a great album, and a great tour,''' Wahlberg says. ``And it would be nice if the fans could do that, too, and say, `You know what? We weren't dumb kids after all. We really invested our time and our love and our energy into something that was worth it.'''